It’s that magical time of the year—halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox—when we start to consider the returning light and warmer, softer days. The seeds in the earth are stirring and in some parts of the world (like ours) snowdrops are up and daffodils are already starting to peep through the soil. For my ancient ancestors, February was a time of great anticipation for the coming growing season. To ensure bountiful crops, productive livestock and healthy mothers and babes, they practiced fertility and purification rites—many of them featuring milk. Why, the Gaelic festival of Imbolc/Imbolg (Feb 1-4) has milk right in its name.
In light of the academic controversy that ultimately surrounds the term for this festival, the distinguished linguist Eric Hamp has conclusively proven that the second syllable for Imbolg can be traced to the Old Irish words for “milk” and “milking” which, in turn, was derived from the Proto-Indo-European root-word *Hmelǵ– signifying “purification”…Rekindling the Rites of Imbolg, W. MacMorrighan
Milk played an important role in these rites. It symbolized new life and so was considered sacred and pure. I imagine it was also dear. It seems unlikely to me that ancient peoples actually drank much milk. It would have been difficult to store and milk production was tied to the seasons. I reckon they made butter, cheese, yogurt, etc and possibly saved the milk drinking for ceremonies or for offerings to goddesses—particularly fertility goddesses. Brighid, the mother/sun goddess associated with Imbolc, has a close association with milk. Legend has it that she was nourished exclusively on milk from an Otherworldly red heifer. Even post-sainthood, St. Brigid was considered a protector of herds and a producer of milky miracles. Pre-Christian and Christian worshippers of Brighid/St Brigid relied on the goddess/saint to bless and protect the milk supplies of their herds and the new mothers in their communities. Of course there’s a whole lot more to Brighid/Brigid than an affinity for dairy—like fire, poetry, herbs, healing…for starters.
In Scotland, dairymaids made libations of milk to the Gruagach, a female spectre of the class of brownies and a protector of herds. It was a practice that may have originated with ancient mother goddess worship and continued as recently as 1770, with an account of dairymaids on the Island of Trodda leaving daily offerings for milk on hollow stone. (source)
And so with a nod to milk-loving faeriefolk, fertility goddesses the world over and for my own ancestors who would have so revered dairy this time of year, I’m once again making this rich “milk punch” for my own midwinter feast. Danielle and I served this last year at our Midwinter Festival of Lights workshop and I’m so looking forward to lifting a cup or two (or three) again this weekend.
The recipe is pretty simple—it’s really just a heavenly mix of whole milk, cream, honey, tea and herbs & vanilla. Heat-loving herbs for a celebration to welcome the sun, makes sense to me. And so I went with lavender for it’s calming, healing and purification properties. You could experiment with other herbs and flavours. I’ve made this with rose and cardamom for a winter solstice party and it was delicious. Rosemary, another Brighid/Imbolc herb, might be interesting…Oh, and bourbon, brandy or any other favourite spirits make this ceremonial libation all the more magical! I serve this in a milk glass (of course) punch bowl with an ice ring (water & flowers frozen overnight in a bundt pan) and a sprinkling of lavender buds. You could also serve this with boozy whipped cream as you would with egg nog. For those avoiding dairy, I imagine you could do something quite spectacular with almond milk or coconut milk and coconut cream…
Recipe: Lavender Cream Libation
1/2 cup + 1 1/2 cups whole milk (the most delicious you can find, grass-fed, organic, fresh,etc)
2 cups of good heavy cream (again, the good stuff, sans artificial thickeners)
4 teaspoons honey (more or less to taste – I use lavender-infused herbal honey)
1/2 a vanilla bean, split & scraped
2 cups of strong brewed lavender tea (use store-bought tea bags or make a tisane with fresh or dried lavender. I used a commercial chamomile & lavender tea. black lavender tea is also lovely. brew extra for blending to taste)
lavender buds for garnish (optional)
Brew a pot of lavender herbal tea. You can make your own with dried/fresh lavender or buy herbal tea bags from the shop. I use multiple teabags and allow it to steep overnight or at least for a few hours to really get that nice herbal flavour. Remember you’re going to blend this with a whole lot of milk and cream, so your tea needs to be able to hold her own.
Once your tea is how you want it and cooled to room temperature, slowly heat a 1/2 cup of milk over low heat with the honey and vanilla. Stir to dissolve the honey and break up the vanilla bean seeds. Allow the sweetened milk to cool and chill.
Meanwhile, combine the remaining 1 1/2 cups of milk and cream in a large bowl. Add 2 cups of tea and remaining sweetened milk. Mix and tinker to taste! Add brandy if you like. Sprinkle with lavender buds or grate some nutmeg on top. Serve very cold or on ice. And if you have a bit to spare, go pour a bit in your garden to bless your own fields or leave a draught or two for the faeries. Happy almost-spring!